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Small-business owners see obstacles to state work

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Donna Arthur doesn't want to do business with the state government.

“I spend weeks and months working on bids only to hear people laugh, say they don’t have to take our bids and talk about how they can get around that,” said the owner of Donna Arthur Landscaping in Lower Allen Township, Cumberland County. “It’s a waste of my time to deal with the state.”

Her comments, and others like it, came recently during a public meeting Jan. 19 at Dixon University Center at which small-business owners from diverse backgrounds talked about barriers keeping them from doing work for state government.

Onerous lists of terms and conditions, constantly changing criteria for scoring requests for proposals and difficulties getting a foot in the door were among the challenges shared.

The meeting was one of a number of public sessions being held statewide as part of a study to determine the extent to which such businesses face discrimination in the state contracting process. They include businesses owned by women, minorities, veterans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people and people with disabilities.

Deb Pierson, president of Pierson Computing Connection Inc. in Silver Spring Township, Cumberland County, said she finds it challenging to keep up with changes in how requests for proposals are scored; it seems to change with every switch in administration.

“You never know where you are going to stand,” she said.

She also said aggregate limits of liability included in state contracts can keep some businesses from being able to participate. “The prime (contractor) should hold that responsibility for the subs, but the state won’t budge on that.”

For the 2016 fiscal year — the most recent for which numbers were available — the Pennsylvania Department of General Services awarded about 8 percent of its $4.6 billion in contracts to small and diverse business owners.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation said about 6 percent of its $1.8 billion in contracts in fiscal year 2017 went to smaller companies.

Kevin Williams, managing director of BBC Research & Consulting, which is undertaking the study for the state, spoke at the meeting about the process of data collection, market research and interviews with diverse small-business owners across the state.

He said the study’s goal is to examine conditions in the market, to assess the participation of small and diverse business owners in the contracting process, to review contracting policies, to refine program measures and to ensure legal compliance.

“We want people to understand what this study is and how we are doing it,” he said. “We also want to hear about any challenges that people have had starting or expanding businesses in the Pennsylvania marketplace.”

Several spoke after he opened the floor to feedback.

Deborah Moses Elton, CEO of VerisVisalign, an IT company in Lansdale, said it’s difficult to figure out who to talk with to get a foot in the door.

“It’s difficult to get the prime contractors to even answer your call unless they need you,” she said. “They have a handful of people they use all the time.”

Troy Thompson, spokesman for the state Department of General Services, said the study was recommended by the Diversity Inclusion and Small Business Advisory Council, a state panel created in 2015 by Gov. Tom Wolf.

“We need the feedback from these businesses to be candid and honest and uncensored,” he said. “We need to make sure their voices are heard to help us realize the depth of the issues we face.”

Katherine Peters, director of equal opportunity for the state Department of Transportation said PennDOT’s transportation and infrastructure contracting is also part of the study. “We want to have them give us best practices to improve diversity in contracting because it’s not where it should be,” she said.

Williams said a draft of the study findings should be finished by late spring, with a final report ready by the end of summer.

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